Ranciere-Problems and Transformations of Critical Art

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Aesthetics and Its Discontents Jacques Ranciere Translated by Steven Corcoran polity ;tco" Problems and Transformations of Critical Art In its most general expression, critical art is a type of art that sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms of domination to turn the spectator into a conscious agent of world transformation. The quandary that plagues the project is well known. On the one hand, understanding does not, in and of itself, help to transform intellectual attitudes and situations. The exploited rarely require an explanation of the laws of exploitation. The dominated do not remain in subordination because they misunderstand the existing state of affairs but because they lack confi- dence in their capacity to transform it. Now, the feeling of such a capacity presupposes that the dominated are already committed to a political process in a bid to change the configuration of sensory givens and to construct forms of a world to come, from within the existent world. On the other hand, the work which builds understanding and dissolves appearances kills, by so doing, the strangeness of the resistant appearance that attests to the non-necessary or intolerable character of a world. Insofar as it asks viewers to discover the signs of Capital behind everyday objects and behaviours, critical art risks being inscribed in the perepetuity of a world in which the transformation of things into signs is redoubled by the ·very excess of
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Transcript of Ranciere-Problems and Transformations of Critical Art

  • Aesthetics andIts Discontents

    Jacques Ranciere

    Translated by Steven Corcoran


    Problems andTransformations of Critical Art

    In its most general expression, critical art is a type of artthat sets out to build awareness of the mechanisms ofdomination to turn the spectator into a conscious agentof world transformation. The quandary that plagues theproject is well known. On the one hand, understandingdoes not, in and of itself, help to transform intellectualattitudes and situations. The exploited rarely require anexplanation of the laws of exploitation. The dominated donot remain in subordination because they misunderstandthe existing state of affairs but because they lack confi-dence in their capacity to transform it. Now, the feelingof such a capacity presupposes that the dominated arealready committed to a political process in a bid to changethe configuration of sensory givens and to construct formsof a world to come, from within the existent world. Ontheother hand, the work which builds understanding anddissolves appearances kills, by so doing, the strangeness ofthe resistant appearance that attests to the non-necessaryor intolerable character of a world. Insofar as it asksviewers to discover the signs of Capital behind everydayobjects and behaviours, critical art risks being inscribed inthe perepetuity of a world in which the transformation ofthings into signs is redoubled by the very excess of

  • interpretative signs which brings things to lose theircapacity of resistance.Critical art's vicious circle is generally seen as proof that

    aesthetics and politics cannot go together. It would bemore valid to see in it the plurality of ways in which theyare linked. On the one hand, politics is not the simplesphereof action that follows an 'aesthetic' revelation aboutthe state of things. It has its own specific aesthetics: inother words, it has its own modes of dissensual inventionof scenes and of characters, of demonstrations and state-ments, which distinguish it from, and sometimes evenoppose it to, the inventions of art. On the other, aestheticsitself has its own specific politics, or rather it contains atension between two opposed types of politics: betweenthe logic of art becoming life at the price of its self-elimination and the logic of art's getting involved in poli-tics on the express condition of not having anything to dowith it. The difficulty of critical art does not reside in itshaving to negotiate the relationship between politics andart. It resides in its having to negotiate the relationshipbetween two aesthetic logics that, insofar as they belongto the very logic of the aesthetic regime, exist independ-ently of it. Critical art has to negotiate between the tensionwhich pushes art towards 'life' as well as that which,conversely, sets aesthetic sensorality apart from the otherforms of sensory experience. It has to borrow the COl1Uec-tions that foster political intelligibility from the zones ofindistinction between art and the other spheres. And fromthe solitude of the work it has to borrow the sense of asensible heterogeneity which feeds political energies ofrefusal. It is this negotiation between the forms of art and. those of non-art which makes it possible to form com-binations of elements capable of speaking twice over: onthe basis of their legibility and on the basis of theirillegibility.Combining these two powers, then, necessarily involves

    adjusting heterogeneous logics. If collage has been one

    46 Politics of Aesthetics Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 47of modern art's major. techniques, the reason is that itstechnical forms obey a more fundamental aesthetico-political logic. Collage, in the broadest sense of the termis the principle of a 'third' political aesthetics. Beforecombining paintings, newspapers, oilcloths or clock-making mechanisms, it combines the foreignness of aes-thetic experience with the becoming-art of ordinary life.Collage can be realized as the pure encounter between elements, attesting en bloc to the incornpat-ibility of two worlds. The Surrealist encounter between theumbrella and the sewing-machine, for example, manifests- in contrast to the reality of ordinary everyday life but inaccord with its objects - the absolute power of desireand dream. Conversely, collage can present itself as thatwhich brings to light the hidden link between two appar-ently foreign worlds, as can be seen in the photomontageby John Heartfield titled Adolf, the Superman, SwallowsGold and Spouts Tin, which reveals the reality of capitalistgold in Hitler's throat; or in Martha Rosier's Bringingthe War Home: House Beautiful, in which photos ofthe horrors of the Vietnam War are combined withadvertisements of American comfort. The issue here isno longer to present two heterogeneous worlds -and toincite feelings of intolerability, but, on the contrary,to bring to light the causal connection linking themtogether.But the politics of collage has a balancing-point in that

    it can combine the two relations and play on the line ofindiscernibility between the force of sense's legibility andthe force of non-sense's strangeness. This is so, for example,in the stories about cauliflowers in Brecht's Arturo Ui in,which an exemplary double game is played between denun-ciations of commodity rule and the forms of high art'sderision that came with the commercialization of culture.They play at once on the ability to discern the power ofcapital beneath an allegory of Nazi power and on thebuffoonery that reduces every grand ideal, political or

  • otherwise, to some insignificant story of vegetables.l'" Thesecret of the commodity to be read beneath great dis-courses is equal to its absence of secret, to its triviality orradical non-sensicality. But this possibility of playing atthe same time on sense and non-sense also presupposesthat one can play simultaneously on the radical separationbetween the art world and that of cauliflowers and on thepermeability of the border that separates them. Thisrequires both that cauliflowers bear no relation to art orpolitics and that they are already linked to them, that theborder is always there and nevertheless already crossed.In fact, by the time that Brecht employed them for the

    purposes of critical distantiation vegetables had alreadyhad a long artistic history. We might recall their role inImpressionist still-life painting. We might also think of theway in which Zola's novel Le Ventre de Paris (1873) ele-vates vegetables in general- and cabbages in particular - tothe dignity of artistic and political symbols. This work,written just after the Paris Commune's crushing, is in effectconstructed around a polarity between two characters: onthe one hand, the revolutionary who returns after deporta-tion to the new Paris des HaIles and finds himself over-whelmed by masses of commodities, which materialize the'new world of mass consumption; on the other, theImpressionist painter who celebrates the epic saga of cab-bages, of the new beauty, contrasting the iron architectureof les Hailes (the central markets) and the piles of vegeta-bles it houses with the old henceforth private beauty of life,symbolized by the neighbouring Gothic church.This twofold Brechtian play on the politicity and a-

    politicity of cauliflowers is possible because there alreadyexists a relationship between politics, the new style of

    48 Politics of Aesthetics


    Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 49beauty and commodity displays. We can generalize thesense of this history of vegetables. Critical art, as art whichplays both on the union and the tension of aesthetic poli-.tics, is possible thanks to the movement of translationwhich, for quite some time already, had crossed back andforth over the line separating the specificworld of art andthe prosaic world of commodities. There is no need toimagine that a 'postmodern' rupture emerged, blurring theboundaries between great art and the forms of popularculture. This blurring of boundaries is as old as 'moder-nity' itself. Brechtian distantiation16b is obviously indebtedto the Surrealist collages that introduce into the domainof art the obsolete merchandise of Parisian passagesor magazine illustrations or demode catalogues. But theprocess extends much further back. The time when' greatart was constituted - and, with Hegel, declared as its ownend - is the same time when it began to become common-place in magazine productions and corrupted in bookstoretrade and the newspaper - or so-called industrial litera-ture. Once again, however, it was at this same time thatcommodities started travelling in the opposite direction,crossing the border separating them from the world of art,in order to replenish and rematerialize the.very art whoseforms Hegel considered to have been exhausted.This is exactly what Balzac demonstrates inthe cycle of

    novels Illusions perdues (1837-43). The muddy and dila-pidated stalls of the Galeries de Bois, where the deposedpoet, Lucien de Rubempre, goes to sell his prose and soul,surrounded by stock exchange deals and prostitution, turnsat once into the site of a new poetry: a fantastical poetryborn of the abolition of borders between the ordinariness ofcommodities and the extraordinariness of art. The sensory .

    16aBrecht's play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Vi (German original,1941) is a parable on the rise of Hitler and the complacency of thosewho enabled it to happen. The play is set in the gangsterland of 1930sChicago in the midst of economic turmoil and presents Arturo in hisbid to gain control of the Cauliflower Trust (the representative ofGermanCapitalism and the Junker Class).

    16bT I' 'di . , . 'f di .rans ator s note: rsrarmanon 15 my term . or istanciation,the common translation into French of Brecht's neologismYeriremdungseftekt. The subtleties of the original German are perhapsbest captured bythe more literal 'estrangement effect', but I have chosen'distanriarion' to fit the context of Ranciere's discussion.


  • heterogeneity on which art feeds in the aesthetic age can befound anywhere at all and most especially on the veryterrain from which the purists want to divert it. For bybecoming obsolete, unfit for consumption, any old com-modity, any object of use whatsoever, becomes available forart, and in diverse ways that can be separated or conjoined:as a disinterested object of satisfaction, as a body cipheringa story, or as a witness to an inassimilable strangeness.Whereas some people devoted art-life to the creation of

    furniture for the new life, and some denounced the trans-forming of art products into aestheticized commodities,there were others who took note of this double movementblurring the basic opposition between the two great poli-tics of aesthetics: if art's products unceasingly cross overinto the domain of commodities, conversely commoditiesand usable objects do not cease to cross the border in theopposite direction, to leave the sphere of usefulness andvalue behind; they then become either hieroglyphs bearingtheir history on their bodies or disused, silent objectsbearing the splendour of that which no longer supportsany project, any will. It is in this way that the 'idleness' ofJuno Ludovisi was to communicate itself to any obsoleteobject of use or publicity icon. This 'dialectical workwithin things', which renders them available to art and .subversion by breaking the uniform course of time, byputting back one time in another, by changing the statusof objects and the relationship between signs of exchangeand the, forms of art, is the illumination Walter Benjaminhad in reading Aragon's Paysan de Paris, wherein theobsolete walking-stick store in the Passage de l'Opera istransformed into a mythological landscape and a fantas-tical poem. And the 'allegorical' art to which so manycontemporary artists claim to adhere is inscribed in thislong-standing filiation.It is by this crossing over of borders and changes of

    status between art and non-art that the radical strangenessof the aesthetic object and the active appropriation of thecommon world were able to conjoin and thata 'third way'micro-politics of art was able to take shape between the

    5Q Politics of Aesthetics Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 51contrasting paradigms of art as life and as resistant form.This is the process which has nourished the performancesof critical art and which can help us to understand its con-temporary transformations and ambiguities. If there is apoliticalquestion in contemporary art, it will not be graspedin terms of a modern/postmodern opposition. It will begrasped through an analysis of the metamorphoses of thepolitical 'third', the politics founded on the play ofexchanges and displacements between the art world andthat of non-art.From Dadaism through to the diverse kinds of 1960s

    contestatory art, the politics of mixing heterogeneous ele-ments had one dominant form: the polemical. Here, theplay of exchanges between art and non-art served to gener-ate clashes between heterogeneous elements and dialecticaloppositions between form and content, which themselvesserved to denounce social relations and the place reservedfor art within them. Brecht gave a stichomythic form to adiscussion inverse on the affairs of cauliflowers so as todenounce the interests concealed behind big words. Dadaistcanvases had bus tickets, clock springs and other such. items stuck on them as a way of ridiculing art's pretensionsto separate itself from life. Warhol's introduction of souptins and Brillo soap boxes into the museum worked todenounce great art's claims' to seclusion. To name onlythree further examples: Wolf Vostell's mixing of images ofstars together with images of war revealed the grim sideof the American dream; Krzysztof Wodiczko's projectionsof homeless figures onto American monuments pointed tothe expulsion of the poor from public space; and HansHaacke's act of sticking small plaques onto museum workspointed up their nature as objects of speculation. Thecollage of heterogeneous elements generally took the formof a shock, revealing one world hidden beneath another:capitalist violence beneath the happiness of consumption;, and commercial interests and violence of class strugglebeneath the serene appearances of art. In this way, art'sself-critique became involved in the critique of mechanismsof state and market domination'..



  • 52 Politics of Aesthetics Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 53


    The polemical function, produced by the shock of het-erogeneous elements, is still the order of the day when itcomes to legitimizing works, installations and exhibitions.Nevertheless, this discursive continuity covers over a sig-nificant transformation which a single example shall sufficeto grasp. In 2000, in Paris, an exhibition entitled Bruit defond placed works from the 1970s and contemporaryworks opposite one another, some of them sound instal-lations, hence the title's allusion to white noise. Figuringamong the former were photomontages from MarthaRosier's series Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful.Hung on the wall close by was a sculptural collage byWang Du, also devoted to the hidden face of Americanhappiness'!" on the left, Bill and Hillary Clinton are shownas figures from a wax museum; on the right, the artistdepicts another sort of wax figure, a plastification ofCourbet's L'Origine du monde, which, as is well known,is a close-up representation of female sex organs. Bothworks also played on the relation between an image ofhappiness or of greatness and the concealed face of itsviolence or profanity. But the Clinton couple could not beinvested with a political stake by the mere relevance of theLewinsky affair. Precisely, the news was hardly important.All it presented to us was the automatic functioning of thecanonical procedures of delegitimization: the wax figurethat turns the politician into a puppet; the sexual profanitythat is the dirty little hidden/obvious secret underlyingevery form of sublimity. These procedures still work. Butthey work by turning in on themselves, just like deridingpower in general has taken the place of political denuncia-tion. Or else their function is to make us sensitive to thisautomaticity itself, to delegitimize the procedures ofdelegitimization at the same time as their object. Therebydoes humorous distantiation take the place of the provoca-tive shock.

    "'Wang Du, Les Temps du monde (1988).


    I chose the significant example of Wang Du's work, butmany others could be cited as proof of the same shift fromyesterday's dialectical provocations to the new figuresof the composition of heterogeneous elements under theapparent continuity of artistic dispositifs and their textuallegitimizations. More, it seems possible to classify. thesemultiple shifts into four major figures of the contemporary.exhibition: the play, the inventory, the encounter and themystery.First the play Ueu], that is to say the double play. I have

    evoked elsewhere the exhibition presented in Minneapolisunder the title Let's Entertain and rebaptized in Paris asAu-dela du spectacle.ITA double game was already at workin the Americantitle, with a wink to intimate its denuncia-tion of the" entertainment industry and a pop-style denun-ciation of the division between great arr and popularconsumption culture. The Parisian title introduced an extratwist. On the one hand, its reference to Debord's book(noted above) reinforced its rigorism concerning the cri-tique of entertainment; but, on the other, it recalled that inDebord's work the antidote to the passivity of the spectacleis the free activity of play. This play on titles of course wasalso a reference to the undecidability of the status of theworks themselves. Charles Ray's merry-go-round andMaurizio Cattelan's giant baby foot were equally open tobeing symbolized either as pop derision, the critique ofcommercial entertainment, or the positive power of play. Itrequired all the conviction of the exhibition's curators tomake clear that the mangas, publicity films and disco soundsreprocessed by various authors, provided us, by their veryreduplication, with a radical critique of the alienatedconsumption of leisure activities. Instead of the Schilleriansuspension of relations of domination, the play invoked:here marks the suspension of the signification of thecollages on display. The value of their polemical revelation

    "Ranciere, The Future of the Image, trans. Gregory Elliott, Londonand New York: Verso, 2007, p. 25 (French original, 2003).

  • has become undecidable, And it is the production of thisundecidability that is at the core of the work of many artistsand expositions, Where the critical artist depicted the luridicons of commercial domination or imperialist war, thevideo artist slightly deflects [detournes] video-clips andmangas. Where giant marionettes were once used to presentcontemporary history as epic spectacle, today balloons andsoft toys 'inquire into' our lifestyles, A slightly deflectedreduplication of spectacles, accessories and icons of every-day life no longer invites us to read signs on objects in orderto understand the mechanisms of our world, It claims atonce to sharpen our perception of the interplay of signs, ourawareness of the fragility of the procedures of reading thesesame signs, and our pleasure in playing with the undecida-ble, Humour is the virtue to which artists nowadays mostreadily ascribe: humour, that is a minimal, all too easy tomiss, hijacking or deflection in the way of presenting a signsequence or arrangement of objects,In their passage from the critical to the ludic register,'

    these procedures of delegitimization have almost becomeindiscernible from those spun by the powers that be andthe media or by the forms of presentation specific to com-modities. Humour has become the dominant way in whichto exhibit commodities, with advertising now increasinglyused to play on the undecidability between a product'suse-value and its value as a sign- and image-support. In asociety which functions within the accelerated consump-tion of signs, playing on this undecidability is the onlyremaining form by which to subvert the meaning of pro-tocols for reading signs. .A consciousness of this undecidability works a displace-

    ment of artistic propositions into the second form, that ofthe inventory. The encounter of heterogeneous elementsno longer aims to provoke a critical shock or to play onthat shock's undecidability. The same materials, imagesand messages, once scrutinized according to the rules ofsuspicion, are now subject to a converse operation: repop-ulate the world of things, seize back their potential forI

    54 Politics of Aesthetics


    Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 55the shared history that critical art dissolved into manipu-lable signs. The arrangement of heterogeneous materialsbecomes a positive recollection, and in two forms. First, itforms an inventory of traces of history: i.e. objects, pho-tographs or simple lists of names testifying toa history anda world in common. In 2000 an exhibition in Paris calledVoila: Le monde dans la tete endeavoured to sum up thetwentieth century by means of various installations andphotographic exhibits. The point was to reassemble expe-riences in such a way that indeterminate displays of objects,names and anonymous faces would all speak and interactin structures of reception. First welcomed under the rubricof play, the visitor encountered a multicoloured bed of diceby Robert Filliou, then proceeded through an installationby Christian Boltanski, Les Abonnes du telephone, whichconsisted of telephone directories of various years andcountries that anyone could; at leisure, pull off the shelvesand peruse at the tables set up for that very purpose. Therewas also a sound installation by On Kawara which, forthe artist, was evocative of some of the 'last forty thousandyeats gone by', as well as Hans-Peter Feldmann's presenta-tion of one hundred photographs of one hundred personsaged from one to one hundred years. Among other workswere a glass-covered photographic display by Peter Fischliand David Weiss, Monde visible, resembling a familyphoto album, and Fabrice Hybert's collection of bottles ofmineral water.In this logic, the artist is at once the archivist of collec-

    tive life and the collector/witness of a shared capacity. Inbringing together the art of the plastic artist with that ofthe chiffonnier, the inventory gives a prominent place tothe potential of objects and images in terms of commonhistory; it also shows the kinship between inventive actsof art and the multiplicity of inventions of the arts of doingand living that make up a shared world - bricolage, col-lections, language games, materials for demonstrations,etc. In the space reserved for art, the artist strivesto render visible the arts of doing which exist scattered


  • 18Michel deCerreau, Les Arts de [aire, Paris: Union Generales d'Editions,1980. .

    throughout society." With this twofold vocation of theinventory, the political/polemical vocation of critical arttends to transform into a social or community-orientedvocation.The third form marks this shift. I have baptized it

    encounter, but it would be just as appropriate to call it. invitation. Here the artist acts as a collector who sets upa reception area and appeals to the passer-by to engage inan unexpected relation with someone - for exampleBoltanski's installation of telephone directories, in whichthe visitor was invited to take a phone book off the shelfand sit down at a table to consult it. Later on in the sameexhibition, he or she was invited by Dominique Gonzales-Foerster to take out a book from a pile of paperbacksand sit down to read it on a rug depicting a desert islandreminiscent of a childhood dream. In another exhibition,Rirkrit Tiravanija made sachets, camping-gas and a kettleavailable to visitors so that they could prepare themselvesa Chinese soup, then sit down and engage in discussionwith the artist or other visitors. Corresponding to thesetransformations of the exhibition space, diverse forms ofintervention into everyday urban space have also emerged:the altering of signalling at a bus shelter to trartsform thetrajectory of everyday necessity into an adventure (PierreHuyghe); inverting the relationship between the au-tochthon and the foreigner by placing electronic graffiti inArabic letters or a loudspeaker in Turkish (Jens Haaning);or making an empty pavilion available to a suburb's inhab-itants for their socializing wishes (Groupe A 12). Relationalart thereby aims no longer to create objects, but situationsand encounters. In so doing, however, it relies on a sim-plistic opposition between objects and situations, effectinga short-circuit where the point is to carry out a transfor-mation of those problematic spaces that once contrastedconceptual art with art objects/commodities. The former

    56 Politics of Aesthetics Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 57distance taken with respect to goods is inverted and aproposition made about a new proximity between indi-viduals, about building new forms of social relations. Artno longer tries to .rcspond to an excess of commodities andsigns but rather to a lack of bonds. As the main theoreti-cian of this school puts it: 'Through little services rendered,the artists fill in the cracks in the social bond.'!'The loss of 'social bond' and the incumbent duty of

    artists to repair it - these are today's directives. But thereport of loss may be given a more ambitious gloss. Notonly are we alleged to have lost forms of civility but alsothe very meaning of the co-presence of beings and objectsconstitutive of a world. The fourth form, that of mystery,. sets out to remedy exactly that. Wanting to apply it tocinema, jean-Luc Godard brought the category of mysteryback into fashion, a category which, since Mallarme, hasdesignated a certain way of linking heterogeneous ele- .ments. Mallarrne's work, for instance, combines thethought of the poet, the steps of a female dancer, theopening of a fan, the foam of a wave and the undulatingof a curtain blown about by the wind; while Godard jux-taposes Carmen's rose, a Beethoven quartet, the foam ofwaves on a beach evoking Virginia Woolf's The Waves,and the elan of amorous bodies, The sequence of PrenomCarmen as summarized here aptly betrays a shift in logic.The selection of linked elements in fact belongs to a tra-dition of detournement: the Andalusian mountain becomesa weekend beach; romantic smugglers crazy terrorists; thetossed flower of which Don Jose sang is now only a plasticflower; and Micaela murders Beethoven instead of singingsongs by Bizet. But the detournement here no longer hasgreat art's function of political critique. On the contrary,it effaces the picturesque imagery to which critique wasattached in order to revive Bizet's characters from the pure

    Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, trans. Simon Pleasance andFronza Woods, Paris: Presses du Reel, 2002, p.. 36 (French original,1998).

  • 2OR.neiere, The Future of the Image, pp. 63-4.

    abstraction of a Beethoven quartet. It makes gypsies andtoreadors fade out into the fusion music of images whichunite, in one and the same breath, the noises of strings, of and of bodies. In contrast to dialectical practice,which accentuates the heterogeneity of elements in orderto provoke a shock that reveals a reality riven by contra-dictions, mystery emphasizes the connection between het-erogeneous elements. It constructs a play of analogies inwhich these heterogeneous elements testify to a world incommon, in which the most disparate realities appear tobe cut out of the same sensible fabric and are always opento being linked together by what Godard calls the 'frater-nity of metaphors'.'Mystery' was the central concept of symbolism. And

    Symbolism is without doubt back on the agenda. By thisterm I am not referring to the spectacular and somewhatnauseating forms such as the resurrection of Symbolistmythologies and Wagnerian fantasies-about the total workof art in Matthew Barney's cycle Cremaster (1997-9). Iam thinking of the more modest, sometimes imperceptibleway in which the arrangements of objects, images andsigns displayed in contemporary exhibitions have shiftedfrom a logic of provocative dissensus to that of the mysterytestifying to co-presence. Elsewhere I have discussed thephotographs, videos and installations presented in an exhi-bition called Moving Pictures, held at the GuggenheimMuseum in New York in 2002.20 This exhibition aimed topoint to the continuity of contemporary works with theartistic radicality of the 1970s qua critique of artisticautonomy and dominant representations. But, like VanessaBeecroft's videos exhibiting nude and inexpressive femi-nine bodies in museum space, the photographs by SamTaylor-Wood, Rineke Dijkstra and Gregory Crewdsonshowing bodies of ambiguous identity in uncertain spaces,or the light bulbs illuminating walls carpeted with anony-mous photographs from Christian Boltanski's darkroom,

    58 Politics of Aesthetics


    Problems and Transformations of Critical Art 59the still-invoked interrogation of perceptual stereotypesveered towards a wholly indifferent interest in the indefi-nite boundaries between the familiar and the foreign, thereal and the symbolic that had fascinated painters at thetime of Symbolism, metaphysical painting and magicalrealism. On the upper level of the museum, a video instal-lation by Bill Viola beamed onto the four walls of a darkroom flames and floods, slow processions, urban wander-ings, wakes and ship embarkation, to symbolize, in addi-tion to the four elements, the gre.at cycle of birth, life,death and rebirth. Experimental video art thus manifestsin plain language the latent tendency of many of today'sdispositifs by miming, in its -own way, the great frescosof human destiny so admired by the Symbolist andExpressionist age.These categorizations of course remain schematic;

    Contemporary installations and exhibitions confer on thecouple 'exhibit/install' several roles at once; they play onthe fluctuating boundary between critical provocation andthe undecidability of its meaning, and between the formof the exhibited work and that of the instituted space ofinteraction. The dispositifs of contemporary exhibitionsoften either cultivate this polyvalence or are subject to itseffects. The exhibition Voila, for example, presented aninstallation by Bertrand Lavier, La Salle des Martin, whichgathered together fifty-odd paintings, many of which camefrom the storerooms of provincial museums, with only onepoint in common, that of an author's name, the mostwidespread family name in France, Martin. The originalidea behind this installation was to undermine the meaningof works and the hallmarks of conceptual art. But in thisnew memorial context the installation took on a newsignification, attesting to the multiplicity of more or lessignored pictorial potentials and registering the lost worldof painting in the memory of the twentieth century. Themultiplicity of meanings ascribed to the same works is _sometimes presented as testimony to the democracy of art,refusing to disentangle any given complexity of attitudes




  • and labiality of boundaries insofar as they reflect the com-. plexity of the world.The contradictory attitudes that today ate being drawn

    from the great aesthetic paradigms express a mote funda-mental undecidability in the politics of art. This undecid-ability is not due to a postmodern turn. It is constitutive:aesthetic suspense immediately lends itself to being inter-preted in two ways. Art's singularity stems from an iden-tification of its own autonomous forms both with formsof life and with political possibilities. These possibilitiescan never be integrally implemented except at-the price ofabolishing the singularity of art, that of politics, or bothtogether. Today, coming to terms with this undecidabilitysparks differing sentiments: with some, a melancholy relat-ing to the world in common that art once carried in it, ifonly it had not been betrayed by political enlistments andcommercial compromises; with others, an awareness of itslimits, a tendency to play on the limitation of its powerand even the uncertainty of its effects. But the paradox ofour present is perhaps that this art, uncertain of its politics,is increasingly encouraged to intervene due to the lack ofpolitics in the ptoper sense. Indeed, it seems as if the timeof consensus, with its shrinking public space and effacingof political inventiveness.:has given to artists and theirmini-demonstrations, their collections of objects andtraces, their dispositifs of interaction, their in situ or otherptovocations, a substitutive political function. Knowingwhether these 'substitutions' can reshape political spacesor whether they must be content with parodying them is.without doubt an important question of our present.

    60 Politics of Aesthetics